Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said Friday that the federal government does not recommend that First Nations proceed with elections during the coronavirus crisis.
Canada recognizes the health risks of holding elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Miller said Friday on Twitter, adding it will work with communities that choose to postpone their election to ensure there is leadership continuity.
Ottawa’s decision follows calls from advocates and members of some communities who urged the government to revise advice for First Nations elections because of escalating concerns over the pandemic.
Tania Cameron, who served as the electoral officer for the community of Shoal Lake 39 for an election on Thursday, told The Globe she contacted Indigenous Services about the possibility of delaying the vote.
Ms. Cameron said the department replied to say the issue was being reviewed by senior management but she said had not heard back and the community proceeded with an election with precautions.
“We just did it one by one all day,” she said.
An individual was responsible for disinfecting the voting station between each vote, she said, adding that people also maintained physical distance while they waited in line to cast their ballots.
Ms. Cameron said she thought the federal government’s advice to communities is a good call, adding it will bring a lot of relief.
Dwight Newman, a law professor and Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Rights in Constitutional and International Law at the University of Saskatchewan, said Friday that the government’s shift in position is constructive.
“It is unfortunate that it didn’t happen earlier because this plan with going ahead with elections in the middle of COVID-19 issues didn’t seem very appropriate,” Dr. Newman said.
“It is good that they have made the shift now.”
Dr. Newman said there are constraints in a statute known as the Indian Act that includes a limit to the term in office for chiefs and band councillors, which likely motivated the federal government’s original advice to communities.
A spokesperson for Mr. Miller said Friday the final decision to postpone or maintain a coming election is under the purview of the community “in accordance with their laws, customs and governance structure.”
The current legislative context does not give the minister the authority to extend terms of office for currently elected and expiring chiefs and councillors in communities governed under the Indian Act or the First Nations Elections Act, said Mr. Miller’s press secretary, Vanessa Adams.
“We recognize that this poses a challenge for communities who may have elections coming up in the near future," she said.
The federal government is working to ensure there are no gaps in governance during this crisis, Ms. Adams added.
Indigenous Services is ready to give advice on measures to limit the risks to community members in the event a decision is taken to proceed with a scheduled election, she said.